Ethics Versus Morals – What’s the Difference?

A student recently asked me how to decide on the difference between and define these two key points: ethics and morals. Generally, it is said that ethics are societal decisions with rigour and structure. Morals are more self-determined and influenced by many influences from family, education to religion.

As you can imagine there is a great cross-over between the two and each influence the other. Both ethics and morals differ in definition when used in different contexts such as within research, business, health etc. Both can differ and vary depending on situations e.g. within a culture and the country used. Let’s take a look at ethics versus morals in more detail.

Debates Around Ethics and Morals

Some recent debates asking what is ethical or moral have centred on:

  1. Should men and women have equal leave for childcare?
  2. When horse meat was found in prepared meals, it created an uproar. However, many people in the UK eat a range of meats, including chicken, beef, pork and Lamb. So why did people make such a fuss over this?
  3.  Why do certain cultures eat various meats such as horse, whilst others do not?
  4. Is the decision to eat Pig-based food an ethical or moral issue? What part does religion play in this discussion?
  5. How do personal and societal values affect ethics and morals?
  6.  When is it OK to build on ‘Green Spaces.’? What if it meant affordable housing for your family or for the poor, would this make it acceptable? Who decides?
  7. Should we manufacture affordable holistic and homeopathic synthetic products and can these be branded as such if they come from chemicals but these chemicals are identical to that found in nature?
  8.  Do we need to eat vitamin tablets?
  9.  Is climate change real – can it be proved? Is it moral and ethical to cut forests in the Amazon so that we have hardwood furniture in the West?
  10.  Should one always argue, hypothesis and debate or be led from the top?

The Oxford Dictionary definition of ethics is:

NOUN – 1. [USUALLY TREATED AS PLURAL] moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity: medical ethics also enter into the question.

  1. [USUALLY TREATED AS SINGULAR] the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles: neither metaphysics nor ethics is the home of religion.”

Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary definition of morals is:

ADJECTIVE 1. concerned with the principles of right and wrong behaviour: the moral dimensions of medical intervention amoral judgement. Concerned with or derived from the code of behaviour that is considered right or acceptable in a particular society.”

What is the Difference Between Ethics and Morals?

As we can see, the Oxford English Dictionary defines ethics and morals similarly, both dealing with the principles of right and wrong. The key difference is that ethics concerns rules from an external source and morals are based on each person’s own principles around right and wrong.

  • Ethics – Rules of conduct in a particular culture or group recognised by an external source or social system. For example, a medical code of ethics that medical professionals must follow.
  • Morals – Principles or habits relating to right or wrong conduct, based on an individual’s own compass of right and wrong.

The Three Approaches to Ethics

Schools of ethics in Western philosophy can be divided, very roughly, into three sorts.

  • The first draws on the work of Aristotle, states that the virtues (such as justice, charity, and generosity) predispose both the person possessing them and that person’s society on the way they act.
  • The second is defended particularly by Kant who centres on the concept of duty being central to morality such that humans are bound by their duty as rational beings, to respect other rational beings.
  • Thirdly, utilitarianism asserts that the guiding principle of ethical conduct should be for the greatest happiness or reduction of sorrow to benefit the greatest numbers. By definition, “morals are values that we attribute to a system of beliefs, be they religious, political or philosophical, for example.”

Crudely speaking, ethics are how society applies beliefs and values into short and long-term decisions. As a result, these two concepts inevitably are intertwined and must be applied carefully to maintain an image of integrity, professionalism and accountability.

In a recent discussion on the principles of ethics and morals, a group of students came up with the following brainstorm summary:

ethics and morals brainstorm wordcloud

Philosophy Qualifications

For those looking to delve deeper into the discussions surrounding ethics and morals, there are a number of courses you can enrol in, including a Level 3 Diploma in Philosophy. This accredited course helps students develop their critical, analytical and evaluative skills. It provides the perfect foundation for those looking to study Social Sciences in Higher Education.

A Level 3 Philosophy Diploma qualification is ideal for students who want to study these subjects or similar at university:

  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Law
  • Sociology
  • Religious Studies

Similar Courses

If you have an interest in these subjects and want to explore Diploma courses in related topics, check out some of the options we offer below:

Summarising Ethics and Morals

How and what guides us in how we decide to work, make decisions and live a ‘good’ life? What influences all our morals and ethics.

Who and what decides what we do and how we live within our society, ultimately everyone has a choice, wherever we choose to live, whether it is covert and dangerous or open and easy… the choice is ours… or is it?!


Wikipedia and (using search accessed 13th February 2014)